Unlike Pallas Athena, young Stephen Sondheim did not spring fully formed from the brow of Zeus. When, in 1954, at age 24, he was commissioned to write a score to a play written by the twins Julius J. and Philip G. Epstein (the authors of Casablanca, perhaps the most overrated movie in cinematic history), he was already a canny lyricist but still a fledgling composer. Even so, it was undeservedly rotten luck that, through a chain of unhappy circumstances, the show was kept from a professional New York premiere until the next millennium. Saturday Night, with a book by half of the Epsteins (Julius J.), arriving almost half a century late, proves not half bad, and should have a full life in regional and college theaters.
The fraternal play, Front Porch in Flatbush, already tightened by Julius, was surely further improved by Sondheim. It emerges as a sweet screwball comedy about Gene, an ambitious young Brooklynite with Park Avenue aspirations way beyond those of his four flatmates, who merely want a date, perhaps a bit of sex, and eventually “a paid-up house in Brooklyn and a double feature every Saturday night,” as Gene contemptuously puts it.
So Gene tries for bigger things and picks up a nice girl, Helen, along the way. But all sorts of schemes collapse, and he gets into quite a pickle from which his pals, their girls and spouses, and the levelheaded Helen rescue him for a humbler but presumably happier future. Without the score, this might be slim pickings; with clever lyrics, sprightly tunes, originality and liveliness in the concept of musical numbers, it becomes an entertainment of more than historic interest.
Kathleen Marshall’s somewhat schematic choreography and flirting-with-the-perfunctory staging are redeemed by Jonathan Tunick’s spiffy orchestrations, Rob Fisher’s nervy musical direction, Derek McLane’s enchantingly whimsical scenery (including a very arch proscenium arch), Donald Holder’s jazzy lighting, and mostly enjoyable performances. Don’t expect a smasheroo, and you’ll have yourself a jolly time in the present along with a nostalgic look back – at the past of Sondheim, New York, and the American musical in the process of ridding itself of the last surviving conventions.
There is only one thing seriously wrong with the show: the leading lady. I have not been impressed by Lauren Ward in Violet or 1776; as Helen, she simply won’t do. An uninfectious dancer and routine singer with a voice tending toward stridulation, she is a decent enough actress. But this is undercut by her looking virtually like the twin of the show’s comedienne, whose looks are deplored by the Saturday-night date-seekers. That David Campbell, as her fellow, Gene, is accomplished in every department, including winning looks, further unbalances the proceedings.
As outstanding as the young Australian leading man is the chief comic, Christopher Fitzgerald, who combines acting, singing, dancing, and fine folly with the utmost naturalness and ease. The rest of the cast members hold their own and blend into a jovial ensemble. And in that wonderful song “So Many People,” you enter the ground floor of one of the finest careers in musical-comedy writing.